After the last row of students gave their answers, the teacher told us the correct answer was seven and that he’d coached the first row to say five. I was somewhat relieved that I had known the right answer but still very upset over standing out of the crowd and feeling betrayed by the teacher. My friend behind me was equally upset. “I thought the answer was seven, but everybody else said five, and I didn’t want to look stupid, so I said five.”
The pull to agree with the crowd is huge. In the fifth grade, I had been careful to word my answer so that I could back down when more information became available. My friend went along with the crowd. At the time, I thought the lesson was about not doing what everybody else does—a good lesson. My mom had told me enough times that just because my older cousin did something, that didn’t mean I should. I still did things my older cousin did because she was doing them, and I wanted to play with her.
How many high school students go out drinking on Friday nights because everybody else does? Yeah, they go drinking to have friends, fit in, and be accepted.
This drive to fit in with the crowd is the power behind what is called the bandwagon approach to propaganda. “Everybody else uses Tide, shouldn’t you be using Tide too?” We hear it all the time. “The nation’s best selling shampoo. The number one product for… More people use… than any other brand.” Like my fifth grade classmates, people will choose a product based on it’s popularity, thinking perhaps everybody knows something they don’t. Even people who know that a certain shampoo makes their hair fall out and gives them big welts and acne, may question whether or not they should try it again.
This pull to do the popular thing and follow the crowd is also used to manipulate us in areas other than our use of purchased products. This is where the topic can turn ugly. In the political world, we are bombarded with polls trying to tell us which candidate is the most popular. There is a reason political parties want us to believe more people choose their candidate. This is the reason a party may flood social media with bots and trolls, shouting “more people like our candidate. The other candidate is evil.” Someone like me may look at the bots and trolls and say, but I don’t see what everybody else sees. I’ll go searching for more data. Other people may be like my friend who will go along with the crowd even if what she sees doesn’t look right.
I find bandwagon propaganda to be abusive. I don’t watch TV because of the manipulative ads. When I look at social media, I see two thirds of the posts support ideas I find morally reprehensible. I have my own standards of right and wrong, yet I feel distressed that the vast majority of my fellow citizens have no clue. This is the impression I get from social media. I have to look past the sheer volume of posts to the number of different friends who oppose that view to see that most people really do care about loving their neighbor, feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. The propaganda to the contrary is a form a gaslighting, telling me that my truth isn’t real.
How do we related to this type of propaganda?
All my friends bought a Roomba in the past two years. They love their little robots. Do I go along with the crowd and by one? Actually, I dug deeper.
Shalah told me hers eliminates dog hair. That’s good. I have a dog that sheds his body volume in hair every day.
Christina told me hers travels easily from carpet to hardwood and even vacuumed the bathroom rug. Hmm, that sounds good.
Sara said she picks hers up and moves it to the room she wants cleaned.
Heather said the cliff sensor really works and her’s has never fallen down stairs. Heather won me over when she said, “My back feels so much better now that I don’t have to vacuum.” I bought my Roomba named Hal.
What did I do hear other than looking at how many friends had bought the machine. First, these are people I trust to tell me the truth. They had nothing to gain by telling me how much they like their machines. They weren’t making any money off of my purchases. I have reasons to trust them. Next, they talked about concrete specific features that worked for them such as the ability to go over different surfaces, being effective on dog hair, easy to move, and the cliff sensors work.
Next, I looked at the literature. I read reviews of the different machines on line. I looked for a Consumer Report article. I studied the features to see what I needed and didn’t need.
Finally, I checked our budget to see if I had enough cash to buy what I wanted and asked myself if this was really a good use for that money. Because my floors were a mess of dog hair, I’m not young and do have back trouble, and we do have allergies, I thought the robot might be a realistic use of our money.
The problem with bandwagon propaganda is that sometimes as in the case of my Roomba, everybody is buying the product because it works and solves problems. Other times, we are just being gaslighted with numbers and words that are not tied to solid reasoning. We need to stop and think about what others have to gain by their testimony, Does this mesh with history? What are the concrete measurable facts? What does the literature have to say about this? And finally, we need to step back and ask if something makes sense. Can we see how this will work? Does it make sense?
We need to be wary of all we hear, especially when told everybody else likes this.